Isha Datar, Executive Director of New Harvest, spoke with Allison Smith, ACE’s Director of Research, on July 28, 2015.
New Harvest aims to be a strategic grant-making organization that focuses on catalytic grants that allow researchers to go from early stage ideas and preliminary research to having a prototype, or some kind of data, that allows them to get funding from some organization other than New Harvest. They do not intend to be a group that can be relied on for repeated rounds of funding.
For their one-year plan, instead of seeking opportunities and acting when they find them, they want to create those opportunities by creating a request for proposals that draws out all the expert researchers who are interested in this field but are unable to do research because of funding issues. An example would be someone who is working at a lab doing tissue engineering, which falls under the field of medical science right now, and which means that any grant that they receive is completely dedicated to a medical application – you can’t just take a percentage of a grant and apply that toward food research. New Harvest is giving those researchers grants in the $50K range to dedicate to food applications of tissue engineering. This is important because there is otherwise no concern about sustainability or bringing costs down to the level of a food commodity in medical research; all the pressures associated with food production are not present in medical development. Even if the science is moving along, it’s not necessarily moving ahead in terms of food production.
They hope to have a significant fund by the end of the year to fund research projects. They have 5 or 6 different projects that they’re working on and evaluating right now, but that is without having any kind of publicized granting program. By the end of the year, they hope to have several Requests for Proposals for projects in specific areas they are looking to investigate, and then hopefully be attracting several more projects from around the world that are focused on this work. One year from now they’ll have funded several of those projects and be looking at how progress is moving along.
Their approach will be similar to Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. They provide catalytic funding for projects that are not being funded through traditional means. Instead of their grant management being just writing a check, it’s working very closely with grantees and making sure they have money in a steady stream rather than in one lump sum in order to keep grantees to a tight budget and timeline. That way, if you see that a project is not moving forward as quickly as you’d like, or has other problems, you can shut it down.
Examples of work
An example of this seed connection is their work with Muufri. New Harvest matched Muufri up with an opportunity to get some funding and some lab space, and within a few months they had attracted 2 million dollars to grow their lab and team. New Harvest was a co-founder of the team of Muufri and Clara Foods, and they were involved with Muufri’s selection of researchers and research design. By the end of the year, they will have raised more than 20 million dollars dedicated to this area.
Their growth is not related to staff size. They have two employees now, and may have four maximum by the end of next year, but it’s not about New Harvest growth, it’s about how many researchers in this field are focused on this research. Within two years they would continue to support the projects that they start this year, in addition to some new startups. Within five years, they want to plant the seeds of a new industry and discipline. The hope is that as places like the National Science Foundation, and even the USDA, are flooded with applications for cellular agriculture, touting the health, environmental and economical benefits, then these agencies will recognize that there is a big scientific community out there of people who are willing to do this type of work, and emphasize the importance of the work. New Harvest hopes that they can convince one of these agencies to start offering their own grants in this area.
They want to create a critical mass working on this. The media may make it seem like there are a ton of people working on this problem, but in reality it’s just a small handful of groups working on it. In order to create this environment, they don’t plan to just pour a large amount of funding to a single researcher, but rather to create an ecosystem and a discipline that thrives by itself.
They received enough donations to fully fund their most important programs last year. They raised $235K last year. The year before that they only raised $36K, which was less than they had spent. They were able to fund what they needed to fund and also to hire another staff member (development director). They have brought cellular agriculture in front of the UN, the US Senate, and various policy makers, so that they can influence funding for this area at the policy level, while simultaneously funding at the individual level.
They are on a trajectory to raise more this year than last year.
New Harvest has been around since 2004, but it was a weekends commitment for the founder Jason Matheny. Isha Datar was hired in 2013, and that’s when it was transformed into a more serious organization. They focused on building a track record and creating an identity for New Harvest, establishing it as the authority on cellular agriculture. Since they established themselves as being active and effective with very little money by 2014, donations increased. Most came from people who had already been donating.
There are two ways they could use the funding. If it was incremental and in the approximate amount of $100K, they will just issue more grants to fund research. But if they were given a very large lump sum of for example $5-10 million, they could create a dedicated lab space where they could do research under one roof, creating an intellectual property free zone where a lot of research can be done with more freedom than could be done in an academic setting. In academia, the institution takes a portion of funding, and there’s a lot more bureaucracy. This lab would be available for all of their grantees to work together in the same space.
How far money goes in funding research
This depends on the project. Some projects, such as creating proteins in a yeast model, are relatively inexpensive compared to something like growing mammalian tissue, which requires a sterile environment. They feel $50K is usually enough to get to the first milestone, though they occasionally will provide more funds in certain situations. New Harvest always follows up on the progress of their grants.
Outcomes and Measurement
New Harvest quantifies success by measuring how much money they have brought to the field from beyond their network. For example, Muufri has attracted $2 million to generate milk and yeast cultures, as a result of some initial work with New Harvest. Clara Foods closed financing for $1.75 million as well.
They also consider media attention that involves the importance of replacing animal products with cellular agriculture, and attracting more talent to the field in general. But they haven’t quantified these.
They haven’t yet reached a stage with policy outreach where they could quantify their results.
Specific goals set in the past
Since Isha only joined New Harvest in 2013, they have had to seize opportunities when they became available, and thus hadn’t set many goals. Now that they can be more strategic and goal-oriented, their goals are about funding research that has the ability to multiply donor dollars into research dollars from other sources.
In the beginning, the organization was focused much more strongly on cultured meat, which was very difficult because tissue engineering is such a new field, and the type of work that needs to be funded is really expensive. They also had a very small budget.
There was a bit of shift when they decided to find accelerator programs that already existed and already had lab space, and just put their own New Harvest developed projects through them. Muufri began because Isha knew a synthetic biology accelerator that was looking for new projects, and she realized that milk cultures were something that were more manageable in this space. That project was the spark that caused a lot of New Harvest growth, by showing that they were able to create something so significant with so little money.
Signs of a need to change approach
If a project is getting enough attention or has been funded already, then their role would be redundant. But currently there is a clear lack of funding, so that’s where New Harvest plays an important role.
Another sign that things needs to change would be if their program is not accomplishing the results they were hoping for, i.e. they are not seeing the multiplicative effect after they fund an individual or project.
Leadership and Capacity
New Harvest has two employees right now, Isha as Executive Director and Gilonne d’Origny as Development Director. The board is not extremely involved, but one board member, Uma Valeti, is a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, and he has been very involved in forming a dedicated cultured meat laboratory there.
Procedures for working with organizations that receive grants
New Harvest uses a step-by-step procedure for the application process. Their grants are open to anyone, and you don’t need to be affiliated with a university, or even necessarily need to be of a certain education level. Many projects can be conducted in public laboratories, or be undertaken by companies. Their criteria is very broad because they want to see who’s out there and interested in this type of project so that they can use that community effectively.
They are going to have a scientific review board that will vet the science behind the projects. Work with grantees is often done on a personal level, and they have a relationship with the community. New Harvest talks to grantees at least once/week, at least in the beginning, about what their needs are, how they can help, what’s working, and things of that nature. Grantees mainly speak with Isha, whereas the Development Director has more of a relationship with companies, donors, and partners and can assist with making connections between them and their grantees.
They require their grantees to be communicative people because there is a large element of communication involved with the overall community.
Number of Individuals/Organizations
Isha thinks that New Harvest could work in a meaningful way with 5-10 grantees, given their current staffing level. However it’s important to note that interaction is usually on a sliding scale; they work with grantees extensively in the beginning, but then it tapers off. Some of their more established grantees only require communication roughly every two weeks.
New Harvest’s network of people continues to grow and they should be able to provide some support as well. An additional hire would likely be a program manager who manages these grantees.
They are revising their website at this time and expect substantial revisions in the next few months. They don’t have the capacity to share their findings with the scientific community, but many groups have reached out to them, as they see that New Harvest is more in need of help, than in a position to offer additional assistance at this time.
Cellular Agriculture As a Field
A large percentage of their community are tissue engineers, biologists, PhDs, entrepreneurs, and people who want to contribute to this field because it’s aligned with their ethical mission or sustainability orientation and they view this field as a technological solution to those types of problems. The community includes scientists who would also be potential grantees.
Sometimes, Isha asks members of the community to review a proposal, or to team up, or those people become potential hires for some of the companies they might see working in this field. They are able to help link up students and professors sometimes as well.
The field is referred to as ‘cellular agriculture’ because the idea is that they can produce agricultural products at the cellular level. Within that, there’s two classes of animal products – ones that are tissue based (e.g. meat and leather), and ones that are non-tissue based (e.g. milk and eggs) where it’s not cells, but rather basically a mixture of proteins and fats. The non-tissue products are relatively easy to make because the process to make them is similar to how we have been producing various drugs or food additives since the 1970s. Insulin is an example of a product that we’d be making in a similar style with Clara Foods egg white protein and Muufri’s milk protein.
Tissue engineered products are much harder to produce because the technology has not been around as long. All the advances made in organ regeneration are related to that. Non-tissue products are going to come to the market sooner. Isha believes that Muufri and Clara Foods are the beginning of this process, and that competition in the marketplace will grow and move the process along more quickly. Those are great companies but they need to get other players involved.
Tissue engineered meat products will not be on the market for a while because there is still considerable research that still needs to be done, and costs will decrease slowly until scale is achieved. Some suggest a timescale of 7 years, but Isha is less certain about that, as it’s associated with man hours. Because of this, she thinks it’s extremely important to get as many people as possible working on different problems in this field to decrease the time to market.
Muufri likely won’t have a product for a few years. The field will get to a point in the near future where you have to scale these products, but coming up with a pilot for this is very expensive, and it’s very risky.
Non-cellular products will need to be produced on a greater scale than that which is currently being done with medicine. The process involves trying to make something that is produced on a scale of several hundred liters a year to eventually become a commodity. New Harvest is thinking of horizontal scaling, rather than vertical scaling, as an evaluation goal, meaning that they want people to be able to produce these products on more of a local level rather than have everything controlled by a small number of institutions.
Availability of researchers
There is a talent base out there that knows how to work on these problems, but that are unable to research food applications because of the way that research is funded. New Harvest doesn’t have plans to be involved with educating new scientists in this field, but they encourage younger people to study relevant areas, like biomedical or tissue engineering.
New Harvest doesn’t cover any expenses related to market research of the companies and individuals that they fund. There are social scientists working on things like market research questions, but Isha doesn’t see the relevance of that in advance of there being a product. The media attention is helpful, but there’s an upper limit on relevance, and this is an area that should be explored once there are products to work with.